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June 1st, 2011 BRENT WALTH | Cops and Courts
 

Out Of Order

The Oregon Courts have so far spent $23 million on a new computer system with little to show for it.

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The state of Oregon has a long history of bungled computer and high-tech projects: DMV, the State Data Center and OWIN, the state’s failed emergency-radio network.

Now, Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz of the Oregon Supreme Court is scrambling to keep a troubled, $90-million computer project he oversees from joining the list.

The project, called Oregon eCourt, is intended to move state courts into this century by ending paper files and allowing court officials to better track cases electronically. Court officials say they have had some setbacks but intend to deliver the project on time and on budget in 2015.

Internal records show eCourt sometimes looks eerily similar to past computer disasters. It’s fallen behind schedule. The courts have already spent $23 million and only a small part of the system is done. A critical legislative report released last week says it’s not clear how long the project will last and what it will ultimately cost.

The project is creating an unusual showdown in Salem. Legislators historically have done a lousy job of policing massive computer projects and have vowed to do better.

De Muniz is asking lawmakers for another $27 million in the next two-year budget cycle. And the chief justice is pushing back against the scrutiny of eCourt. He’s told lawmakers he understands they control the money for the project, but that separation of powers—the courts are a separate branch of state government—means lawmakers threaten to overstep their bounds by dictating how the courts run the project.

“He’s found an instance or two where he thinks there’s been an intrusion,” courts spokesman Phil Lemman says of De Muniz’s message to legislators. “This is the chief justice’s way of reminding people there is a separation of powers and there is such a thing as micromanaging.”

Legislators tired of being shamed by the state’s failed computer projects say the chief justice had better get used to the scrutiny.

“We’re cognizant of [the fact] that this is the judicial branch,” says Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, co-chair of the committee that reviewed eCourt. “But the chief justice understands our concern is fiscal and keeping an eye on costs.”

Across Oregon, court file rooms work about the same as they did decades ago—stacks of paper files, logged in by hand. After years of work, new software for the Oregon Supreme Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals is running fairly well.

But that’s a small bright spot. An independent quality-assurance consultant’s study—apart from the legislative report—found 18 management problems that are likely to threaten the eCourt project’s success. The legislative report says the project started in 2004. Yet court officials, the study says, still lack a way of “identifying, tracking, managing and reporting issues facing the program, leading to performance delays, performance failures, and duplication of effort.”

When the project falls behind schedule, the study found, court officials erase the missed deadlines and set new ones. As a result, the study says, “The program will appear to be never behind schedule.”

Most of the money that remains to be spent will go toward updating computer systems for the trial courts in 36 counties. And that’s where the big job is: Oregon trial courts handle 50 million pieces of paper a year.

Scott Smith, the eCourt program manager, says all of the problems are being addressed. Others come from court officials’ decision last year to change course and use a single program to handle records rather than getting several to work together. The change, he said, will allow the project to finish earlier than planned and save money overall. 

However, the legislative report says the switch means abandoning progress made to date: $6 million to $8 million spent on earlier software will go to waste.

Smith said he understands lawmakers are worried but criticisms of eCourt have “cherry picked” problems while ignoring the program’s strengths. “You combine that with a gun-shy Legislature, and there’s your issue,” he says.

Devlin says the court officials will not see the full $27 million they asked for in the next budget—and they can expect to have legislators dole it out slowly until eCourt shows meaningful progress.

  “We have to figure out how to do these projects properly,” Devlin says. “We just can’t afford to have any more significant failures.” 

 
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